Tom Strini
Review

MSO’s dark Bluebeard, sunny Mozart

By - Oct 31st, 2009 01:05 am
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Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, an odd-duck 1917 opera for two singers and a massive orchestra, isn’t performed very often.

Chihuly's Bluebeard's Garden. Parks Anderson photo..

Chihuly’s Bluebeard’s Garden. Parks Anderson photo.

The libretto is based on a murky, creepy folk tale stretched into vintage psychodrama. The music is closer to Richard Strauss and Debussy than to Bartok’s signature string quartets. The opera is in Hungarian, not the favorite language of opera singers, and it requires singers with huge, dramatic voices and expert musicianship. Such people are in short supply. At 66 minutes in one act, Bluebeard is awkward to program. It is expensive to put together, difficult to play and conventional wisdom would call it a hard sell. Which explains why the Milwaukee Symphony, in its 50 seasons, had never performed Bluebeard’s Castle.

But there it was in Uihlein Hall on Halloween night, getting a brilliant MSO performance and wild ovation from a big crowd.

The widely publicized presence of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures, made for a Seattle Symphony Bluebeard in 2007, had a lot to do with filling all those seats. Everyone knows the Chihuly piece in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Many art insiders think it’s kitschy, but the public at large loves it.

Dale Chihuly's Bluebeard's Armory

Dale Chihuly’s Bluebeard’s Armory. Parks Anderson photo.

Regardless of how Chihuly might rank as a sculptor, there’s no denying the theatrical power of his six-piece Bluebeard collection and his sensitivity to both the music and the bizarre text. The pieces stand on a platform upstage of the orchestra. A looming black wall conceals each sculpture. One by one at the appropriate plot point, the assemblies revolve to reveal the glowing glass.

The opera’s action is simple: Bluebeard and Judith, his new wife, walk through this creepy old castle. She insists that he open seven locked doors. The first is a torture chamber, in Chihuly’s mind a set of vertical bars red as branding irons. Next comes an armory of fearsome weapons, that is, a violent tangle of barbed and pointed oranges, reds and yellows — the very picture of the electric tangle of martial brasses in the orchestra.

Chihuly's Torture Chamber

Chihuly’s Torture Chamber. Parks Anderson photo.

The torture and violence have earned Bluebeard a treasure trove of pearl-white rods that turn to gold before our eyes as the music shimmers; an opulent garden of man-sized lilies whose petals could be hungry mouths; and a vast domain of luminescent purple trees ribboned with miraculously delicate glass banners.

The music built to each revelation, driven by sometimes heated and sometimes affectionate exchanges between soprano Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and bass-baritone Andrea Silvestrelli. They possess the massive, ardent voices Bartok’s opera needs, and they know how to use them.

This through-composed opera is not about tunes. Dramatic thrust is the thing, the powerful gesture, the convincing speech rhythm. I was glad to have the supertitles, but I could almost have done without them, such was the clarity of the singers’ inflection and phrasing. (Also, the words are minimal: Open the door. No. Open the door; I love you. Well, OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Bartok also carries the meaning in a score crackling with tone painting, and not only in terms of illustrating what’s behind the doors. The music is a groaning, roiling, creaking, bubbling thing that suggests that the castle itself is alive and evil. Even when Bluebeard’s jewels enchant us with their shimmer, some snarling tremolo or dark dissonance is grinding in the guts of the orchestra.

Bela Bartok

Bela Bartok

The MSO sounded as if it had played Bluebeard’s Castle as a specialty; such was its command of a score that barely goes three bars without changing meter. To play this piece as they did for the very first time is a great tribute to music director Edo de Waart. He exactly understood the drama here and drove it patiently or furiously to its many climaxes. He arranged those climaxes to peak absolutely when Bluebeard’s three previous victims/wives are revealed to Judith. Along the way, he made clear and specific Bartok’s torrent details, his wonders of sonority, color and imagery.

Bartok’s opera was night; Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat was day. The pleasure here lay in the utter clarity of rhythm, texture and pitch and the bright energy of this performance. Ilana Setapen, the new associate concertmaster, and veteran principal violist Robert Levine were featured in this 30-minute double concerto. They gave endless delight as they played like old pals, in perfect tandem in one moment and, in the next, finishing each other’s statements with unbroken agreement and grace.

This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31. Tickets at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Other reviews: Elaine Schmidt

0 thoughts on “Review: MSO’s dark Bluebeard, sunny Mozart”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely wonderful! The photos from the Seattle performances did not come close to seeing the Chihuly works! Wild Imagination forged with such Passion! Brilliant lighting – must be seen in person. As told to me by one of the staff overseers prior to the performance, Edo wanted this to be an Event. It was!
    -Robert
    (pssst…it’s Ilana)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I cab’t wait–am going tonight!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Too bad it is not playing longer. The most satisfying performance of this work that I have seen and heard.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Konrad, Stefanie and Robert, for commenting. And thanks for catching the typo, Robert. It’s fixed. — Tom

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thank you.
    RRW

  6. Anonymous says:

    You are absolutely right to congratulate both the maestro and the orchestra for learning not only quickly, but so deeply, the haunting, individual character of this great piece. It sounds like no other Bartok (he was only 29 when he composed this piece) and is seldom done, but this was a notable night for Milwaukee. ( By the way, relative to the awkward programming aspect of “Bluebeard”, apart for “Cav” and “Pag”, an interesting article could be written about how hard it is to find a place in general for operas that are not a whole evening’s worth- there are masterpieces by Mozart, Ravel, Stravinsky, just for beginners)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations all around: excellent review, wonderful event. The two soloists and Edo must have been outstanding. Both Charbonnet and Silvestrelli performed memorably at the San Francisco Opera, and I wish we had them here for “Bluebeard.” Cheers, Janos

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi Janos, thanks for the comment. I clicked on your name and went to San Francsico Classical Voice, where I discovered that you are the second-most productive arts writer in America. I’m pleased that you saw fit to drop by ThirdCoast. — Tom Strini

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hey Stef – hoped to read an afterthought…..

    -R

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